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Journal Article

Edward Lee Thorndike and John Dewey on the Science of Education

Stephen Tomlinson
Oxford Review of Education
Vol. 23, No. 3 (Sep., 1997), pp. 365-383
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1050962
Page Count: 19
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Edward Lee Thorndike and John Dewey on the Science of Education
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Abstract

At the beginning of this century the two most important theorists in the history of American education, Edward Thorndike and John Dewey, formulated radically different visions of how the art of teaching could be transformed into a science. Thorndike, combining a strongly hereditarian behavioural psychology with the newly developed techniques of statistical analysis, showed how schooling could be structured around the methods of industrial management. By atomising and standardising every aspect of the educational process, a cadre of experts and administrators would replace traditional rule-of-thumb methods with scientifically proven practices dovetailed to the needs of a modern state. Although Dewey was also committed to the value of science as a universal tool for human betterment, he completely rejected the epistemological, psychological and sociological assumptions implicit in Thorndike's technocratic vision. In contrast to Thorndike's mechanistic world view, Dewey formulated an organismic ontology modelled on the process of adaptation and demonstrated that the scientific method depends upon the construction of a democratic community of problem solvers. By evaluating these theories of human nature and the social good, I discuss the failings of Thorndike's programme within the American school and explain the implications of Dewey's more sophisticated arguments for educational practice.

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